Manchester United vs. Arsenal: 5 Key Matchups
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Arsenal's game against Udinese at the Stadio Friuli was the Club's biggest match since the 2006 Champions League final. Fact. Victory granted access to yet another crack at Europe's top trophy, no more nor less a status than we have achieved in the past 14 seasons. Defeat, however, would have been disastrous for Arsenal on many fronts: financially, the ability to sign new players, the ability to retain the existing squad, the mental scars of defeat...the list goes on.
It's back to domestic commitments, though, and it doesn't get any bigger than this. An away game against the champions, Manchester United, at Old Trafford.
The champagne, if any, after last night's victory, will need to remain on ice for the next few days, as Arsenal head to the northwest on Sunday for what promises to be an absolute cracker of a game.
The rivalry is fabled and long-standing. United have enjoyed the upper hand, especially in recent times, and Arsene Wenger will be dying to bring some parity to the proceedings.
There will be some fierce battles fought all over the pitch and beyond, none more so than the following five...
5. Theo Walcott vs. Patrice Evra
Key battle on Arsenal's right wing
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In the absence of Gervinho, Theo Walcott will be responsible for providing much of Arsenal's creative impetus against United. And to have a real impact, he needs to win his individual battle against a player most Gooners love to hate.
Patrice Evra has won no friends in north London for his various derogatory comments over the years, but in all fairness, he is a top quality left back. Fantastic positional sense, strong in the tackle, fleet of foot, mentally focused, tactically astute and dangerous going forward, he is everything a left back needs to be.
If he never opened his mouth, I'm sure we would all respect him, rather than want to feed him to the nearest crocodile.
Walcott will need to be at his very best come Sunday. There is no sure-shot formula against a defender of Evra's ability, so Walcott will need to mix and match; hang out on the wing as well as drift inside; occasionally change flanks; interchange between the dribble and the give-and-go; try and get in behind as much as possible; shoot from distance, when the opportunity presents itself.
It will be a massive challenge for Walcott, but in the words immortalized by Abraham Lincoln, "only the test of fire makes fine steel."
4. Robin van Persie vs. David De Gea
"Don't blame me"
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David De Gea is a top goalkeeper. You'd better believe it.
Although Sir Alex Ferguson has put some real duds in goal in between the Schmeichel and van der Sar eras (anyone remember Massimo Taibi?), he has picked a winner this summer. I believe that De Gea will go on to become a United legend, much like Wojciech Szczesny will do at Arsenal.
However, he has not made the most auspicious of starts to his United career, and it is this opportunity that Robin van Persie needs to capitalize on.
RvP has been in sensational form in 2011, scoring his 22nd goal in 26 matches this year against Udinese last night. He has a fearsome strike from distance (now with both feet), and he needs to use this ability on Sunday. In the absence of Ferdinand and Vidic, one should expect him to see more of the ball, and get into some dangerous positions. And if De Gea has one weakness, it is his shot-stopping against long-range strikes. He has conceded eleven goals from outside the box this calendar year.
Get those shooting boots on, Robin.
3. Ashley Young vs. Carl Jenkinson
Amazing transition to the top tier
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Carl Jenkinson was playing for Welling United a few months ago. He now finds himself at Europe's top table, and in all fairness, he has acquitted himself well. A fine league debut against Liverpool was followed by an outstanding night at Udine, where besides a solid defensive shift, his composure laid the foundations for Arsenal's second goal.
At Old Trafford, he will be up against an experienced and formidable adversary in Ashley Young, and a good display could well confirm that he does belong at this level. Young has started the season well, setting up both of United's goals in their season-opener against West Brom. He is a tricky opponent due to his ability to dribble, cross and shoot from distance. And he's no slouch when it comes to speed.
Jenkinson will do well to avoid an early booking, and to deny Young the space he craves for and thrives in.
A tough baptism for the 19-year-old from Harlow, but an invaluable step on the ladder of long-term success and accomplishment.
2. Nani vs. Bacary Sagna
The right 'Bac'
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A tough day at the office is going to get even tougher for Bacary Sagna if, as expected, Kieran Gibbs is not passed fit for Sunday's encounter. Sagna has been Arsenal's makeshift left back for the past two games, and he looks set to continue in what is not his normal position against United.
On his worst form, Nani is a formidable opponent. Up against an in-form Nani, playing in an unnatural position, Sagna will have his hands full. He won't have the greatest of support from reluctant tracker-back Andrey Arshavin. Not only must he defend well, but he needs to support the attack too, thereby pushing Nani back and pressurizing Chris Smalling—also playing out of position at right back for United.
Tough times beckon for Bac, but it's not for nothing that he's been voted the Premier League's best right back for two out of the past four years.
1. Arsene Wenger vs. Sir Alex Ferguson
Time is the best healer...
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But more than ever, this Sunday, it will be a tactical sword fight between the two longest serving managers in the Premier League.
Both teams will enter this fixture in a similar frame of mind. United have been perfect, winning the Community Shield as well as their first two Premier League games. Arsenal have had a patchy start to the season, but they will have been significantly lifted by their two victories over Udinese, and their resulting qualification for the Champions League. This qualifier was hanging over the team like the sword of Democles, and I predict that having gone through, Arsenal will play with the freedom of winners.
In terms of personnel, both teams have lost key players. United will be without Ferdinand and Vidic, and the latter particularly will be a huge loss. Arsenal have lost Gervinho, Song and Frimpong to suspension and Wilshere, Gibbs and Diaby to injury.
Will Wenger be bold, and ask his attacking players to go all-out against United's young center halves? Or will he be more pragmatic in the absence of all of his holding midfielders?
Similarly, will Sir Alex, the master tactician, who beat Arsenal last year with seven defenders on the pitch, ask his team to play with pace and attacking verve, or will they adopt a more cautious, counter-attacking approach?
What about team selection? Will Wenger really play with four teenagers at the formidable Theatre of Dreams? Will Sir Alex opt for two strikers or one?
Questions, questions, questions...
It promises to be a thrilling battle within a battle.
I can't wait.